by James Fisher
CLARKSBURG -- Even non-racing fans were stunned Sunday evening by the shocking news that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a crash at Daytona International Speedway during the season-opening Daytona 500.
"This is just huge; it's unbelievable," said Stephan Bokey, who was working at the 212 Pub Sunday. Several patrons sat in silence as they watched national television coverage of Earnhardt's death. Several drew comparisons to Kenny Irwin Jr. and Adam Petty, two drivers killed last year in crashes.
"For us non-NASCAR fans, those are the two names we all know -- Petty and Earnhardt," Bokey said.
For one local Earnhardt fan, the loss was a little more personal. Tommy McCray was not only a huge fan, but he attended Sunday's race and had a seat along the front stretch, about a half-mile from where Earnhardt crashed in turn four.
"I really thought he was going to be fine. I've seen wrecks that looked a lot worse than that," McCray said in a telephone interview from the Daytona area. "It hasn't really sunk in yet.
"I go to races to see him and I've lost a lot of interest today. I plan for NASCAR. I've got tickets to both races at Bristol and you expect to see him there," he said. "It's so much more exciting when he's leading or has a chance to win, and it's like there's a void there now."
Although Richard Petty, Adam's grandfather, was affectionately known as "The King," some true-blue Earnhardt fans believe that tag should have been hung on the man they called "The Intimidator," "Ironhead" and more recently "The Man In Black."
"He was larger than life, it was like he'd never die," said Abe Heise, who was visibly shaken by the news. "We thought he'd live forever and race forever. I think NASCAR will feel this for a long time because they've lost a legend."
Earnhardt, whose 76 career victories was tops among active drivers and seven Winston Cup championships tied him with Richard Petty for the most, was the first NASCAR driver killed at Daytona since Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr in 1994.
"I just saw an interview with him this morning and he was real optimistic about his chances for winning," said Marianne Tedder, owner of In A Sense, just down the street from the 212 Pub.
While an autopsy on the 49-year-old driver was expected today, a trauma doctor in Daytona was quoted as saying that Earnhardt was unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse from the time paramedics arrived at his crumpled car.
"It's just doesn't seem real," Heise said. "I hear the words, but it doesn't sound real."
Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at email@example.com.